“The cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development.”
-Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University economist and emerging markets expert
Jack Dorsey grew up in downtown St. Louis and was obsessed with city life, the flow of human interaction, and computer programming. He had always kept a journal and had pondered on how technology could make this task easier. Dorsey was working as a programmer in San Francisco when RIM’s mobile e-mail device started making waves in the late 1990s. He instantly got hooked on the BlackBerry and wrote a piece of software to categorize the e-mails as journal entries. Dorsey was also an early user of LiveJournal, a social network that let people see friends’ posts about their activities in reverse chronological order. He had been writing rudimentary software programs for dispatching taxis, ambulances and courier services since his high school days. So here, at the crossroads of BlackBerry and LiveJournal, he thought he could do for himself what he had been doing for years in helping taxis and couriers: declare where he was and what he was doing.
That night in July 2000, Dorsey wrote a code that enabled him to have an e-mail re-posted to as many people as he wanted. He entered the e-mail addresses of five friends into the software, wrote an e-mail with the subject line “I’m at the Bison Paddock watching the bison” and took a walk to Golden Gate Park. His friends weren’t terribly enthused because no one else had a mobile e-mail device. Moreover, no one really cared what Dorsey was doing in the park. But he kept refining the concept, and by 2001, he had sketched out a basic template for a service he termed as Stat.us. A few years later, in 2006, Dorsey joined the San Francisco software startup Odeo which was aiming to produce a directory of podcasts. But when Apple incorporated a directory of podcasts into iTunes, Odeo’s business plan was thrown out of the window. At that time, with Odeo in full reset mode, its boss Evan Williams asked his staff for new ideas, and Dorsey laid out his vision for Stat.us.
Dorsey was passionate about city life-and locomotives, police cars, and taxicabs that were part of it. He was fascinated by the way drivers and dispatchers succinctly conveyed locations by radio in taxicab communications. Dorsey proposed that Odeo create a service that would allow anyone to write a line or two and send that message to anyone who wanted to receive it. The short text alert was a way to add a missing human element in the ever-expanding digital life. The timing was impeccable because text messaging had just begun to take off in the United States. Dorsey would work closely with several others on a project called “twttr.” Before long, the team had a working product, and Dorsey authored the first tweet “just setting up my twttr” for co-workers. Williams wanted to turn Odeo into an incubator for multiple businesses, so Dorsey was made CEO of the new venture that became known to the world as Twitter. By 2011, when Twitter, with its precision and minimalism, had become central to modern culture, Dorsey had 1.6 million followers.
However, by the time Twitter became a cultural force, Dorsey was being pushed out the door. Though he was made chairman, he was no longer an employee in the company. He had seen this all before during the dotcom frenzy when in 1998 he, along with Greg Kidd, had set up dNetservice for dispatching couriers online. They raised money, hired a CEO, and then the new boss pushed the co-founders out over strategy disagreements just when the tech bubble burst. Fast forward to October 16, 2008, Evan Williams took over the role of CEO at Twitter and the episode was like déjà vu. But before Dorsey had time to sink into despondency, he got a call from Jim McKelvey. McKelvey had hired Dorsey as a teenage programmer for his St. Louis-based company that archived documents onto CD-ROMs; he later became Dorsey’s business partner. Later in 2008, McKelvey passed on the reins of his software firm and set up a glassblowing studio in St. Louis. One day, after losing a customer of US$2,000 just because he wasn’t equipped to accept the American Express card, he called Dorsey.
They were talking on their iPhones when McKelvey proposed to build a system that would make and accept credit card payments on smartphones. Within days McKelvey left St. Louis, moved to San Francisco to team up with Dorsey and Tristan O’Tierney, and started working on what would eventually become Square Inc. It took them a month to cobble together a working prototype codenamed Squirrel. Dorsey worked on the back-end server, O’Tierney on the iPhone app and McKelvey worked on the hardware and on establishing relationships with payment partners. McKelvey built the prototype credit card reader; otherwise, he didn’t actually work at Square on a regular basis. In 2009, the three conceived a business around a free device that would be dispensed to anyone who signed up: a tiny, square-shaped credit-card reader that could be plugged into the headphone jack of an iPhone, Android phone, or tablet computer.